Study into sheep scab aims to increase transparency

Independent veterinary practices under the XLVets community banner, have banded together to carry out a nationwide study on sheep scab. Caused by the mite Psoroptes ovis, sheep scab, was notifiable in the UK until 1992 and was only made notifiable again in Scotland in 2010, while a voluntary reporting scheme is in place in England and Wales. In addition to contributing to the survey, participating practices will also be sharing information with farmers about the importance of testing for sheep scab.

The study was suggested by vet Emily Gascoigne of Synergy Vets, who noticed that hers was one of the few practices that appeared to be voluntarily reporting cases in England. Around 40 practices within the XLVets community are taking part in the study, with their participation prompted by concerns that a lack of transparency about the disease could led to its proliferation.

Many sheep farms are not testing for sheep scab and it’s easily mistaken for lice infestation. However, once a flock is affected by sheep scab it can be time consuming and expensive to control, as well as posing significant welfare issues.  The options are plunge dipping with organophosphorus or macrocyclic lactone injectables. As a result of concerns about resistance to Group 3-ML wormers, when targeting external parasites, it is advised that more specific products are used, such as organophosphorus dip, delivered using on-farm or mobile plunge sheep dippers.

The initiative is being supported by Bimeda UK, who provide an online Sheep Scab Academy that helps veterinary surgeons and SQPs stay up to date with best practice for sheep scab control. Bimeda UK’s Professional Services Vet Sharon Cooksey, commented, “Sheep scab causes intense itching leading to significant self-inflicted trauma. If left untreated, it leads to rapid and significant weight loss, low birthweights and higher mortality in lambs born to infected pregnant ewes, and death in the worst affected cases. This situation is hugely distressing to the farmer and causes substantial economic losses. Bimeda has worked for many years to raise awareness and promote best practice in managing this awful disease, including supporting the launch and ongoing operation of the Biobest ELISA test, so this is an initiative we are happy to support.”

It’s been observed that that farmers can feel ‘judged’ when sheep scab appears in their flock and the impulse to keep it hidden may hold back efforts to control it. Emily explains that the study is about more than simply identifying areas of the country that are sheep scab hot spots, “The results will help to quantify the problem but we are also tackling the other side of the coin by trying to make sheep scab less of a taboo. The potential for contiguous infection from one farm to the other, means that forewarned is forearmed. Farmers often blame themselves when their sheep get scab which although it can result from a failure of biosecurity at boundaries or during quarantine, can also be brought in on people, deliveries or equipment. Then there are real worries about whether that will affect the sale-ability of their stock or their relationship with their farming neighbours. We want to encourage vets and farmers to start the conversation and to start actively testing for sheep scab.”

The survey has been running since the start of October and will continue for the next five months, with results expected around March 2021.

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